A: Know what you can afford is the first rule of home buying, and that depends on how much income and how much debt you have. In general, lenders don't want borrowers to spend more than 28 percent of their gross income per month on a mortgage payment or more than 36 percent on debts.
It pays to check with several lenders before you start searching for a home. Most will be happy to roughly calculate what you can afford and prequalify you for a loan.
The price you can afford to pay for a home will depend on six factors:
the amount of cash you have available for the down payment, closing costs and cash reserves required by the lender
your outstanding debts
your credit history
the type of mortgage you select
current interest rates
Another number lenders use to evaluate how much you can afford is the housing expense-to-income ratio. It is determined by calculating your projected monthly housing expense, which consists of the principal and interest payment on your new home loan, property taxes and hazard insurance (or PITI as it is known). If you have to pay monthly homeowners association dues and/or private mortgage insurance, this also will be added to your PITI.
This ratio should fall between 28 to 33 percent, although some lenders will go higher under certain circumstances. Your total debt-to-income ratio should be in the 34 to 38 percent range.
Q: What do I do if I get turned down for a loan?
A: Increasing numbers of loan applicants are finding ways to buy their own home despite past credit problems, a lack of a credit history or debt-to-income ratios that fall outside of traditionally acceptable ranges.
Ask the lender for a full explanation, then appeal the decision in writing.
Q: What is the first step when looking for a home loan?
A: Most experts recommend that you should get prequalified for a loan first. By being prequalified, you will know exactly how much house you can afford. Almost all mortgage lenders now prequalify people, and many of them can even do it on the Internet. You also can do your own affordability calculations; most recent consumer books on home buying include steps to doing so, as do various real estate Internet sites.
Q: How do you qualify as a first-time buyer?
A: In general, lenders define a first-time home buyer as someone who has not owned any real estate -- whether a personal residence, vacation home or investment property -- during the past three years.
Lenders verify an applicant's status by examining their income tax returns, checking to see that the individual did not take any deductions for mortgage interest or property taxes.